The idea was simple: prepare for the colossal Mount Donna Buang by targeting a smaller nearby climb the day before. We’d endured the shock of a challenging hike whilst out of practice just a few weeks prior, and were in no rush to repeat the experience. We’re not professionals over here, just two Melburnians with a map, a keen sense of curiosity and a desire to explore first-hand.
We need a warm-up.
You can imagine our delight when we happened upon Mount ‘Little Joe’, just half an hour away. A little mountain! Perfect! And I couldn’t think of much harm inflicted by anyone called Joe (Stalin aside).
We located our hike, parked the car, and headed to the Dolly Grey Park picnic area via the Backstairs Track. This was already looking promising.
The established board-walk path quickly hits a tiny waterfall and this is where both the ascent, and the track proper, begins. This is also the point it hits you: Mount Little Joe is spectacular.
This is not a conveniently placed lead-in to tomorrow’s main event, it’s a gorgeous walk in its own right, and despite the overcast and humid conditions, we were taken with the beauty of the flora and the gentle tranquillity of this little slice of Victorian temperate rainforest. It feels wonderfully immersive.
The board-walk is long gone, and transforms into a meandering, more natural-looking trail – my favourite kind. It sometimes narrows, often throws up obstacles and lends to a feeling of exploration as we brush through giant ferns, navigate fallen trees and marvel at the scenery. It’s moderately steep but we hardly notice.
One thing we do notice, as this part of the trail ends and the back stairs deliver us to an unpaved road, is that this track is badly sign-posted, and when I say ‘bad’, what I mean that there are often simply no signs at all. We have a pretty vague, dodgy map we found online and we’re measuring our altitude via a smartphone app, but the lack of proper signposts leaves us in the unenviable position of picking the direction that ‘feels right’.
I put the nagging sense that many stories with bad endings must have started this way to the back of my mind, and walk on.
We’re aiming to loop back on ourselves, but we’re also keen to reach the peak, at 450m. We hit an intersection of two paths; the flat road that continues, or a wide, steep path to our left. With no indication of which leads where, we ingeniously deduce that the peak must be higher than we are, and turn to take what awaits.
There are no photos that properly do justice to the difficulty of this section of our walk. It feels like the perfect storm of steep incline, wet conditions under foot and duration, conspiring together to push us to the limits of our determination to reach the top of this thing.
In retrospect, it probably wasn’t such a long way, but when every step sinks you into the mud, and you see nothing but an impossible climb, it starts messing with your sense of perspective.
We figure it wouldn’t be much easier to descend, so we plod on via slips, slides and occasional yelps. It crosses our mind that perhaps this isn’t part of the official trail at all, but it adds to our sense of adventure, and there’s always a way back down if we’re wrong.
One of the really enjoyable things about Mount Little Joe is that nothing stays the same for very long. This isn’t a long, unbroken walk of identical surroundings; Little Joe offers defined chapters; seasons that keep our interest piqued and make us keen to discover what’s next. Soon enough the climb evens out and takes us to high forest, the sun now breaking through the canopy as if to reward our efforts.
I’m not sure we ever reached a ‘designated peak’. We climbed as high as our app said we could, and to the point of unavoidable descent, but there was no confirmation we’d arrived; the only view glimpsed at was between trees. But there was nothing left to climb, and that was good enough for us. We found a tree stump and let it signify our accomplishment. Time for the traditional mountain-peak cup of tea and protein bar.
I left a circle of stones to greet the next weary adventurer; an ambiguous mark of congratulations, or perhaps a Blair-Witch-style element of spookiness. Something to mark this spot.
We’re not sure the map is accurate at this point; we’re not entirely sure the steep track we’ve accomplished is even printed, and our inner orienteer is waning as words like ‘maybe’ and ‘probably’ find their way into discussions about the best way back to the car. There are a number of directions we could take and, predictably, no indication where any of them go, except down.
We’re in no rush, and head the way that ‘seems about right’. It’s not the way we came, but the gradient is no less punishing, covering our footwear with mud as we take little side-steps and pretend we know what we’re doing.
Our aim is to meet the Backstairs track and enjoy it once more on our descent, but we pass whichever path must have taken us there, blissfully unaware of our resulting final challenge: a series of colossal ‘bumps’ in what would otherwise have been a relatively short and steady descent to pedestrian-level. Each climb was immediately followed by a huge drop, before another big climb, and so on. With the nearby township of Warburton shielded by the terrain, and nothing before us but a wide dirt track and a distant mountain, it felt wild and desolate. The mountain’s final chapter. Little Joe’s last laugh.
The sign at the bottom of the last ‘hump’ seemed to make a lot of sense
Mount Little Joe, then. We wondered what was there, and spent a fair amount of time wondering where ‘there’ was, but ultimately we made it. We climbed until we could climb no higher, we explored, we experienced nature’s beauty and although we were spat out 2km from the car, it was quite literally a walk in the park compared to some of the challenges here. Little Joe had humbled me, foolish as I was to ignore what it was.
No mountain is a ‘warm-up’; each is there to be appreciated and embraced for itself.